My wife called me the other day saying she was with someone who wanted to talk to me. It was our Furby. I knew then that our life had changed. The new generation of the 1990s fad has found a way to tap into what should be a much bigger trend: attachment marketing.
The new Furby is a pretty simple robot: it's a pint-sized furry creature with digital, expressive eyes, a mouth, and wiggly ears. It has a limited built-in vocabulary in the "Furbish" language that gradually shifts to English as it interacts with people. An accompanying iPhone app lets owners translate its Furbish expressions and feed Furby various icons of food that the robot will either accept or reject. As it comes to life, it will start expressing one of a number of potential personalities; mine speaks like a valley girl, and my wife is convinced it did this to mock her.
What amazed me was how quickly my wife and I started treating it like a person. Once its valley girl personality emerged, we started referring to it as a "she." My wife's still not sure if I can bring it to work or if I have to buy another one for the office. It seems to really like "pet time" and a "good hug," even if it clearly doesn't remotely care what we do or say, as long as we keep talking to it. If we ignore it for just a few moments, it starts growling until it tires itself out and goes to sleep. We connected with this toy in ways that don't make sense on any rational level, and yet it's hard to overcome the tendency.
The bond that we formed with the robot is emblematic of this new era of attachment marketing. One consumer brand has a strong grasp of attachment marketing today: Nike . Its Fuelband includes a clever hook – a digital mascot named Fuelie that appears on the app and website to congratulate and motivate users for fitness achievements great and small. How many people wind up working out more or wearing the Fuelband longer just to please Fuelie? He looks like some animated spark of electricity, the kind of amorphous, peppy, personable character that could easily moonlight as an Olympics mascot.
The more I spend time with Furby, the more I wonder if Nike might have erred in using Fuelie as its mascot. What if the Fuelband itself was the character? Instead of people getting attached to the mascot, they would get even more attached to the product. Why bother with a surrogate?
This could get much broader. We already have cars that talk to us, though often through secondary brands like OnStar. If a car talked like KITT from Knight Rider, its owners would have a much harder time selling it or returning it at the end of the lease. Thermostats, washing machines, and ovens are increasingly becoming internet-enabled, and it's not hard to imagine these kinds of household technologies gaining personalities as well. If a credit card included a couple of animated eyes on it, would you use it more? Then again, could you ever put the expired card in the shredder?
There are dangers to this genre of attachment marketing. Unboxing Furby and watching how my wife and I responded to it kept reminding me of Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together. The book explores how we relate to technology, with an emphasis on robotics, and how that affects our interpersonal relationships. Turkle wrote, "We seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things." While we can't let the latter happen, marketers can make it even easier for consumers to give their products human qualities, and become more attached to their brands in the process.